Saint Patrick and How The Irish Saved Civilization

Perhaps the greatest missionary since St. Paul gets little more than green beer from most of us. There’s not even a major motion picture about him. He deserves better.

Saint Patrick was a very simple man. Most of the artwork of him makes him look like a typical bishop from the period. He was anything but.

Nitium Page from the Book of Durrow

The Irish didn’t just copy books, they illuminated them, creating fabulous works of original art. The Irish imagination was given full vent on the pages of these codices. This one is from the Book of Durrow.

Like the landscape of Ireland, the Irish people can be both harsh and fanciful, stark and idyllic.

The Irish landscape is both harsh and fanciful, stark and idyllic. These contrasting qualities show themselves in the Irish people as well.

There are far more Irish living outside Ireland than inside.

There are far more Irish living outside Ireland than inside. Many came to the United States in the 19th Century and settled in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. This is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, an excellent example of the Gothic style of architecture. (Photo used courtesy of A Day Not Wasted. See link at end of article.)

Once again, the rivers are running green (at least in Chicago), the parades are being held, green beer is being dispensed in Irish pubs, people are wearing shamrocks, Irish jokes and limericks are being recited, and idiotic artwork is being sent back and forth across the Web. But does any of this have anything to do with Saint Patrick? Very little.

Saint Patrick was a very great man – as great as any you can name – and this is the way we remember him? If you’ve ever read or at least heard about the book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, then you know that if it weren’t for Patrick of Ireland, the world today would be a very different and much worse place. As Bishop of Ireland, Patrick brought Christianity to the Celtic people in the 5th Century AD; and the Irish, in turn, brought education, stability and Christian values – including a vision for the future – to the rest of the Western World at a time when the Roman Empire was in shambles, barbarian hordes from the north were moving in for the kill, and hostile Muslims were migrating from the south at an alarming rate.

The Irish saved civilization by saving it spiritually, culturally and in every other way that people can be saved. While Germanic barbarians were burning the libraries of Europe, Irish monks were painstakingly and lovingly copying books in monasteries all over Ireland. Gorgeously artistic manuscripts, like the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, were the result. When the Post-Roman Empire was on the brink of sinking into the dark mire of ignorance and fear, Irish monks were traveling all over Europe, building monasteries as centers of learning and enlightenment. When most people groups were in chaos and wandering over the face of Europe, looking for an identity and a place to call home, Irish monks were intentionally on mission, spreading Celtic Christian culture that became the foundation of Medieval society.

They were called “warrior-monks.” They could also be called “warrior-poets.” They were at least spiritual warriors. Patrick was the first, but there were thousands that followed, each adding more and more light to an otherwise benighted world. Patrick was, in every sense of the word, a missionary. But so were all the monks that followed. They were called “Green Martyrs” and “White Martyrs” because they gave up everything: first of all, to focus all their attention on Christ, and to live simply and naturally with God’s Creation (Green Martyrdom); but then, later, to strike out into the world and take the Gospel of the Creator to the lost members of that Creation (White Martyrdom). They were as effective as their First Century counterparts: the Word spread like wildfire.

There were certain characteristics that distinguished Bishop Patrick, as well as his followers: 1) they loved Nature and Nature’s God; 2) they were highly imaginative and extremely creative; 3) they believed in true catholicism, accepting people’s differences and practicing inclusiveness; 4) they were courageous, walking, as it were, right into the lion’s den; 5) they were tenaciously loyal; and 6) they were generous to a fault. These qualities endeared the brothers to their flocks and stood in sharp contrast to the sometimes worldly and always political Roman Church.

There was another characteristic that abounded in Patrick and spilled over into his followers: his mystical, supernatural powers. There are so many miracles attributed to Saint Patrick that one would think the First Century Apostles had come back to life: stories about warriors’ swords going through him but not hurting him, of his walking through fire unharmed, of his running all the snakes out of Ireland, of his seeing visions, etc. It was these signs, coupled with the Gospel message and Patrick’s own servant’s heart, that convinced the superstitious, magic-minded Irish to believe in the Creator God.

After centuries of serving the world as bearers and protectors of the Light, the suffering of the Irish had just begun:

In 793 AD, the Vikings began invading Ireland and by 875 AD had destroyed all the monasteries the monks had built; they replaced them with cities. Ireland never recovered its cultural leadership of Europe.

In 1170 AD, Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland. Luckily, the Irish were able to absorb them culturally.

In 1556 AD, the Elizabethan English invaded. They were met with opposition and subsequently destroyed the forests while trying to rout out dissenters.

In 1649 AD, the Calvinist Oliver Cromwell invaded and began the wholesale slaughter of Catholics. The Irish came close to extinction.

In 1690, the last of the Irish nobility left because of the intolerable conditions created by the British. (This was known as “the Flight of the Wild Geese.”)

In 1695, British Penal Laws were enacted that deprived Catholics of their civil rights.

Between 1845 and 1851, after British landowners had abused the land for centuries, famines ravaged Ireland, killing one-sixth of the population. Another one-third fled the country in search of bread.

From 1916 to 1921, the Irish fought for their independence against the British.

In 1922, an Irish Free State was established, but Northern Ireland remained under British rule. Ireland remains divided to this day.

I get really tired of hearing how other races and people groups have been mistreated in the past, from Native Americans to African-Americans to women and now homosexuals. No people have suffered more than the Irish. Yet, no people have complained less or had a better attitude – especially considering how much they’ve contributed to the world. The best we can do is to pray for them and show our appreciation for all they have given us.

In many ways, the Irish remind me of the Children of Israel. While Israel was the least of all ancient nations, caught in the cross-roads of the world; Ireland was the least of all modern nations, lost on the outskirts of the world. Yet God has used both those nations in wonderful ways. I pray He will again.

If you’d like to learn more abou the Irish, check out Celtic Voices.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Waitsel Smith

Waitsel Smith, March 17, 2011

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Text © 2011 Waitsel Smith. Photos © various sources. Photo of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral courtesy All Rights Reserved.

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  • Richard Owens February 12, 2014, 2:54 PM

    great submission — this book is on my stack waiting to be read… soon =0)

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